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Originally published Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 8:45 PM

Nicole Brodeur

Rape victim was victimized in court, too

He's dead now. Hung himself in his jail cell after apparently giving up on his case. But for two days in July 2009, Sankarandi Skanda had...

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes I do not want to see "playing the victim" used as a tool to hide the truth... Read more
quotes If a pro se defendant victimizes a witness during cross examination, it is because the... Read more
quotes While I agree that the accused has, and should have, a constitutional right to face his... Read more

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He's dead now. Hung himself in his jail cell after apparently giving up on his case.

But for two days in July 2009, Sankarandi Skanda had all kinds of power acting as his own attorney as he defended himself against rape charges in a King County courtroom. As a pro se defendant, he could question his victim. Talk to her. Say her name and those of her husband and children.

It made her skin crawl.

"It was not only reliving what happened, but like having a fresh attack," Skanda's victim, a mother of two from Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, told me the other morning. "He was absolutely enjoying my pain."

And he had a constitutional right to do so. So does D'Marco Mobley, who will go on trial this month on charges related to his alleged pimping of three young women. As a pro se defendant, he, too, will be allowed to question his accusers about alleged rape and kidnapping.

There has to be a better way than putting victims of sexual assault on the stand and letting their alleged attackers poke them like trapped animals.

The very prospect of facing her rapist, Salvador Cruz, drove one young woman to the roof of the King County Courthouse in November 2010. Think about that for a second: She would rather have considered jumping from a 12-story building than face the man alleged to have raped her when she was a child. (Cruz later was found guilty, and she never testified).

The state Supreme Court is trying to sort out these special circumstances and is seeking input on a proposed rule that would give trial judges greater authority to restrict questioning of alleged victims by pro se defendants.

They need to speak to women like the victim from Wallingford, now 38, who feels lucky that she had the support of her family and a good education to keep her steady and strong on the stand — even as Skanda suggested that she hired him to kill her husband because he was abusing their children.

It got that bad.

"I'm good," she said. "But I worry about the people who don't have what I had. I understand that (the accused) have a constitutional right, but in a lot of these cases, the reasons they are going pro se is because they want to victimize again and show how clever they are."

At trial, Skanda sat 10 feet away from her and, at times, smirked. When the prosecuting attorney, Julie Kays, questioned her, Kays stood in a way that blocked the woman's view of Skanda — who then moved his chair so she could see him, she said.

"He was trying to be 'the man,' " she said. "I don't think it can ever be good."

Attorney Becky Roe, who for years has advocated for victims of sexual assault, thinks pro se defendants can help victims wrest some power back.

"By and large, these guys aren't very good at asking questions," Roe said. "They kind of make fools of themselves. The victim can come out and go, 'Wow, he got his.'

"It depends on the dynamics of the relationship," she added. "But I think it can be a good experience for the victim."

The victim from Wallingford scoffed at that idea. And Kays, the former King County senior deputy prosecutor who handled the Skanda case, also disagreed.

"It is absolutely 100 percent horrific," Kays said. "More often than not, these guys are calling the shots because they are incredibly manipulative and totally get off, get some sick pleasure reliving that moment and torturing that person all over again."

Kays can't understand why it's allowed at all since, when you file a sexual-assault or a domestic-violence case, a no-contact order is put into place.

"This process turns those powerful protections on their head," she said.

Kays and the Wallingford woman suggested that judges require pro se defendants remain seated while questioning witnesses.

"Trying to make more distance may make it less intimate," the Wallingford woman said. "You're having a conversation. There's proximity. It's frightening."

Instead of allowing the pro se defendant to question his alleged victims, Kays said, judges should require that the questions be asked by the standby counsel assigned to assist.

It also would help if the standby counsel reviews the pro se defendant's questions.

"The questions that (Skanda) was putting together were not the normal questions," the Wallingford victim said. "I was expecting to be asked where were you, what happened, and he asked me, 'Why did you hire me to kill your husband?'

"These were things that were completely out of left field."

Pro se defendants may have a constitutional right, but to their alleged victims, it feels like anything but justice.

"Make it so that they decrease the ability for them to have one less shot at a power trip," the Wallingford woman requested. "It's too much."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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